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Titli Khan

Published:
2018-11-28 11:59:52 BdST

Iran’s saffron seeks global recognition


The labourers edge their way across a field of bright purple flowers gathering up the world’s most expensive spice, a bounty that makes this dusty corner of Iran a crucial part of global cuisine.

The delicate purple leaves of the Crocus sativus plant hold just three or
four of the even more delicate red stamen, better known as saffron, that
sprouts for just 10 days a year.

These tiny filaments are currently selling in local markets for 90 million
rials per kilo — about $700 on Iran’s volatile exchanges — and perhaps four
times higher abroad.

The government says more than 90 percent of the world’s saffron grows from
the hard soil in Khorasan province of northeastern Iran — a figure
corroborated by France’s specialist institute of agriculture and fishing
FranceAgriMer — eventually finding its way into Spanish paellas, Indian
curries, Swedish saffron buns and much more.

India is a distant second, followed by Greece, Morocco, Azerbaijan,
Afghanistan and Spain, according to a FranceAgriMer report in 2013.

The star producer in Iran is the small town of of Torbat-e Heydariyeh,
about 700 kilometres (435 miles) east of Teheran — which accounts for a
third of global production, according to FranceAgriMer.

But poor marketing means Iran has not always won the credit it deserves as
the home of saffron, having mostly exported it wholesale to other countries
who label it as their own.

“All the cultivation is done here, but the marketing and sales is done
elsewhere,” local parliament member Saeid Bastani told AFP.

“The people of the world should know that all saffron — of any brand in
any market in the world — is Iranian whether it says Spain, Italy or
Switzerland,” he added with just a sprinkle of patriotic exaggeration.

The government is working with local businesses and farmers to fix the
problem.

From his swish new factory on the outskirts of Mashhad, Ali Shariati, CEO
of Novin Saffron, sends out around 15 tonnes of high-grade saffron to world
markets each year and is spearheading “Made in Iran” efforts.

It’s tricky because the major markets each have their own saffron needs
that require specific packaging and branding — Spain wants powder for
paella, Britain likes entire threads for Indian cuisine, Sweden likes tiny
capsules for seasonal saffron treats.

“We have to keep innovating and adapting so we can compete with the
marketing in other countries,” said Shariati.

– Drought migration –

Other issues are forcing innovation on the industry — most pressingly,
the devastating drought that has hit Iran’s dry regions for the past two
decades.

Saffron plants require much less water than many other crops, but the
drought is still causing a migration northwards.

“The land being cultivated is gradually moving north, but that means
they’re moving into wetter regions and that’s no good because the quality is
better in dry areas,” said Amin Rezaee, a farmer in the heart of saffron
country — around two hours’ drive south of Mashhad.

Like most farmers, he has been sucking water out of the ground to water
his land, but now realises he must invest in more sophisticated irrigation
systems if he wants it to survive.

“It’s a problem that people are irrigating in traditional ways. They must
start to invest in modern methods,” he said.

At his factory, Shariati said the problem is easily solvable with better
education and support for villagers, which could boost Iran’s production from
400 to 1,000 tonnes per year.

The biggest issue for farmers, he recognised, was navigating Iran’s
nightmarish banking sector, which is notoriously reluctant to lend to small
businesses.

So under a new “fair trade” scheme his firm now organises loans on
farmers’ behalf, bulk-buys equipment at cheaper prices, and provides
education on farming techniques.

“We’re educating at least 20,000 farmers and we have guaranteed purchases
contracts with 4,000,” he said.

“We want them to deliver more organic saffron and improve their lives at
the same time.”

– ‘Salt, pepper, saffron’ –

The other obstacle is Iran’s struggling economy, which has lately seen
wild fluctuations in the currency, in part due to US sanctions.

“The price of bulbs, fertiliser and labourers have all trebled this year,
but the price of saffron has only doubled,” said Mohamad Jafari, whose family
has been selling saffron in the small town of Torbat-e Heydariyeh for half a
century.

That is good for exports, but another blow for Iranians hit by soaring
prices.

Still, most people in the saffron trade remain upbeat.

International sales have been boosted in the past five years by increasing
interest from China, and foodstuffs are protected from US sanctions — making
it a priority export for the government.

“The biggest problem with saffron is that people don’t know about
saffron,” said Shariati.

“We want them to think ‘salt, pepper, saffron’.”

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